How to Eat a Hamburger

Sure, have it your way—but at least know which rules you're breaking when you do
July 14, 2020 Updated: July 14, 2020

While fast food isn’t the hamburger’s only venue, it was engineered for life on the go from the very first prototype.

According to the official hamburger creation story, as certified by the Library of Congress, the era began in 1900, when a customer rushed into Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. He needed some fast food he could grab and go, long before those terms had been coined. Louis Lassen, who’d opened the place five years earlier, served him a ground beef patty between two pieces of sliced bread, and the burger was born.

Epoch Times Photo
Louis’ Lunch, the birthplace of the American burger, in New Haven, Conn. (F11photo/Shutterstock)

This hot, juicy, tender steak sandwich would find its way onto almost every restaurant menu in America, including some of the fanciest. But because the burger is at its best when eaten one-handed, it was the burger and not apple pie that built the drive-thru, just as Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium.

And the lifestyle that the drive-thru enabled, for better or worse, has become as American as ketchup.

Have It Your Way

Louis’ Lunch could have had the first-mover’s advantage in this growth industry, but opted for a simpler path. A sign on the wall announces, “This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way.”

The website explains this defiant approach: “We want you to experience the meat’s true flavor, so we serve it on white toast and only offer cheese, onion, and tomato as garnishes.” All the usual condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, mayo, and hot sauce, not to mention extras like pickles and lettuce, are forbidden.

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The original burger on white toast with cheese, onions, and tomatoes—and nothing else—at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn. (ZhengZhou via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Call me too American, but I resonate with Burger King’s “have it your way” philosophy. And I am in awe of what the Big Mac accomplishes, at a squeezable 2.75-inches high, bringing together two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on not one but three sesame seed buns, so that each bite contains all of the elements. It’s masterful.

But who am I to tell Louis’ Lunch to not do it their way? Inventing the burger has earned them that right. They have managed to stay in business for more than 120 years, too. And they even serve apple pie.

Whatever hamburger you make or get served, here are some rules to eat it by. Follow them or not, but at the very least, I believe it’s helpful to know the rules you’re breaking.

Rules of the Burger

Rule No. 1: The first rule of eating a hamburger is we don’t talk about eating, or anything else, while chewing our burgers. Along these lines, there is a good argument to be made that a burger is best eaten alone. Otherwise, see Rule No. 2.

Rule No. 2: Don’t offer anyone a bite of a half-eaten burger, no matter how much you want them to experience its deliciousness. Even under the best of circumstances, a hamburger, like a new car, drops in value the minute you drive it off the lot. A crumbling meat patty held together by soggy buns, with mayo’d tomato slices squeezing out the sides and juices dripping into a puddle on the plate is generally a sight that only appeals to the one who ate the other half.

Rule No. 3: Don’t get hurt. A snake can dislocate its jaws to ingest something larger than its head. You are not a snake.

In 2010, Taiwanese dentists began sounding the alarm about an increase in jaw dislocations thanks to a hamburger arms race among Taipei burger joints, whose burgers were getting dangerously big.

I can almost relate. In the passionate pursuit of burger-y gastronomic pleasure, I have also struggled against my own anatomy to open my mouth wide enough to take a proper bite. I remember feeling the bones on the sides of my face roll by each other, almost past the point of no return, before I came to my senses and realized it wasn’t worth it.

While the Taiwanese dentists targeted fast-food restaurants, here in the United States, the threat of jaw dislocation by hamburger lurks closer to home. Handmade patties tend to be rounder and thicker than their commercial counterparts. And while fast food buns seem designed to melt away at first bite, some buns will add dangerous inches to your burger’s height.

That’s why I actually appreciate the sliced bread they use at Louis’ Lunch. The embrace of the bun has been a mistake, because bread slices do a great job without making your burger taller. A pair of chewy pieces of sourdough toast won’t wilt away and leave your hands full of burger mess like a flimsy fast-food bun might. Instead, those toasted slices can keep the contents contained and focused on your mouth.

But if such decisions are out of your hands, and your burger arrives dangerously tall, ask for it to be cut in half. This gives you entry points to bite that won’t send you to the emergency room with your mouth locked into a scream position. Louis’ Lunch, to its credit, serves its burgers sliced in half. If only they had aioli.

Rule No. 4: Don’t let go. While a pristine burger is a thing of beauty and balance, once the first bite is taken, it wants to explode. Putting that burger down increases those odds. Sometimes, of course, you have to readjust. Just do it carefully, with full awareness of the risks.

Rule No. 5: Don’t forget the fixings and condiments; it’s never too late. Sometimes, you get served a burger and realize something is missing. Or you make one at home and realize something is wrong. Or halfway through that burger, for whatever reason, you just aren’t getting enough ketchup in your bites. You need to make an adjustment, but can’t risk putting it down, much less opening it up and rebuilding it on the inside.

Instead, apply a modest amount of whatever condiment you need with surgical precision to the area you are about to bite. Maybe you dab some mayo with a spoon, spurt some hot or hoisin sauce, or dip the corner of the burger into a dish of aioli. Always ask if they have aioli.

And always sip wine as you chew, not beer. A hamburger’s greatness lies in being a perfectly embellished hot steak sandwich, and if anything demands wine, it’s steak.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.